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Searching the Mountains of Heaven

(Page 2 of 2)

Ishen told me not to go back up the slope searching for it. Ten thousand men could comb that mountainside in vain for something so small. I was still upset the next morning when Ishen disappeared for his morning bath. He was gone a long time. When he came back we had breakfast. After breakfast, he pulled out my whip and put it in my hand. A pine needle was caught in his long, black hair.

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One morning near the end of our trip, we rode through a valley more striking than anything I've ever seen in my life. More beautiful than the Andes, the Alps, the best mountains of my most perfect dreams. At the far end of the valley, far from where we were, barely visible, a lone horse was sprinting toward us. It was a small blur of a vision. On either side of the horse were jagged peaks rising up like the saw-toothed edges of ancient tools, like the sides of chipped arrowheads turned into giant mountains. The snow on those peaks was a blinding white. It floated above the green, cloth-like meadows of the open valley below.

The horse grew closer, galloping hard through a downpour of morning sunlight, galloping toward us, dust rising in its wake. Finally, we could make out another figure. A man was on the horse's back, leaning forward, whipping either side. We stopped our own horses to watch. We stopped next to a river and heard the rush and gurgle of the water. The river was full of smooth stones, and for a moment I looked down, wondering what it would be like to be down there, below the surface, looking up through the water at the sky.

I looked at Ishen. He was still staring at the oncoming horse. He was smiling now, and when I turned I saw why. There were children on that speeding horse, two young girls, one in front and one in back, daughters of the man in between. Everyone clung tightly to the sheepskin saddle, and behind each girl I could see long, braided pigtails bouncing like swirls of wind, bouncing with each stride the horse made.

At last the horse arrived. The man pulled in the reins, stopping on the opposite riverbank. The water was flowing between us. He was a poor, strongly built shepherd with a round Mongol face. He wore a wool cap and cracked leather boots. Across the rushing water we all stared, back and forth. The horse was breathing hard from the sprint, and the riders themselves were out of breath. With narrow, squinting eyes, the girls cocked their heads and looked at us. They wore wool leggings and coarse skirts. Their braided pigtails were very long, framing faces with cheeks burned red by sun and wind, as if they'd been raked with hot coals.

''What are you looking for?'' the shepherd said finally, his voice heavy.

I shifted my weight in my saddle. The girls' pigtails were so long that the ends touched the horse's back, brushing against the beast's skin, which glistened from the hard run. I wished then that Ishen did have wings and I could use them to cross the river and capture the faraway essence of this place, rough and untamed, the wildness that was hidden in these mountain slopes, never to be found.

''What are you looking for?'' the shepherd asked.

Ishen shrugged his shoulders, and I said nothing. I struggled against the glare of the white snow above, blinking my eyes.